Ocean choking on sewage

A new project using technology and data aims to raise awareness about the dumping of raw sewage on the Atlantic Seaboard.

We are doing irreversible damage to one of our biggest tourism drawcards with the raw sewage that is being dumped into the Atlantic ocean.

This was the sentiment expressed by experts as a three-week pilot project to test and monitor the sewage outfalls on the Atlantic Seaboard gets under way.

Up to 50 million litres of sewage is being pumped daily into the ocean off Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

All the sewage from the whole City Bowl as well as the seaboard ends up in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, the new data and technology driven project aims to put pressure on local government to change this.

The project was started by Social Weaver, an organisation that does new media training.

Dubbed the Beach Water Watch, the project, which is being funded by Code For Africa, aims to do testing on the water three times a day and make the information available to the public online.

The group will also be working with public health specialist Professor Edda Weimann of UCT, who has done previous research on the matter. They will be using drones to monitor the outfalls offshore.

Steven Kromberg, one of the founders of Social Weaver, said the project aimed to raise public awareness about the health implications of dumping raw sewage into the ocean. He said he initially got interested in this initiative because he is an open water swimmer and swims regularly off Clifton beach.

He said the public, particularly those who took part in water sports off the Atlantic Seaboard, needed to be aware of the potential health hazards.

“If you look at the City of Cape Town data for testing, the red is at a critically high level. I think the data is showing that the sewage is drifting back to shore. There is a lot of water sports happening on those beaches and no one is told where the outfall is and not to go there. There is also a holiday season coming up where there are going to be thousands of people using the water and there are no warnings and potentially a serious health issue. We’ve got funding for the three week pilot phase but we think there is a need for ongoing, independent testing and monitoring of the situation.”

He said the City of Cape Town was obliged to test the water and make the information available at these beaches. “That’s why we want to develop a website as part of the project where people can go and get this information,” says Mr Kromberg.

He added that the short-term goal for the pilot project was to raise public awareness about the issue at a critical time while the City of Cape Town’s dumping permit was under review while the long-term goal was to radically reduce the pollution that were being put into the water.

Michael Salzwedel, also of Social Weaver, said they wanted to put pressure on the City of Cape Town to do something about the problem and that the drones would not only be used for to collect photographic evidence, but also to collect data and map the affected area. “Drones are increasingly becoming an important tool and there is a whole new field of journalism that uses drones as well.”

Marine conservation photographer, Jean Tresfon, said we are in danger of losing one of the most valuable assets the city has. He has been documenting marine life through underwater and aerial photography using drones for the past eight years and agrees that local government needs to do more. “In the next 20 years the population of Cape Town will double because of the City’s densification policy. The infrastructure is not so much outdated but rather that it is already at its limits. We’ve got to start doing something about it. There is no good sitting here, throwing up our hands and not doing anything.”

Mr Tresfon, whose images of sewage off the cost went viral on social media last year, said more action needed to be taken by local government before it was too late.

He added that it was also important for the general public to realise the impact of dumping sewage in the ocean. “We view the ocean as a source of protein and in most cases you wouldn’t you wouldn’t sh** where you eat,” he said.

Mr Tresfon said there was new testing being done by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) at the outfalls themselves. “The data is showing that the results directly in the sewage plumes are horrific but as you move away from the centre it appears to get better relatively quickly. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it is all pollution and we need to fix it. This is a problem that (made the headlines) 20 years ago and have we really moved on?”

According to Mr Tresfon, the answer to that is no.

But just how bad is the water pollution?

Professor Weimann, a Public Health specialist at UCT, said the water pollution was potentially dangerous to beach users. “Firstly we pollute bathers, recreational water users (paddlers, surfers, divers, etc) and children playing in the sand and on the beaches. People paddling, diving or swimming frequently report of diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory tract infection and eye infection so called thallasogenic diseases (disease caused by sewage pollution). If you have any predisposing disease such as a renal dysfunction or failure and bath in the water, there is a chance to acquire an E. coli infection with a fatal outcome.”

She said damage was also being done to the sea life by dumping sewage in the ocean. “We pollute our fish and shellfish, especially when eating raw fish such as sushi. There are reports that our fish are no longer accepted to be imported to the European Union caused by the high E coli contamination. Then we kill our sea mammals such as seals and probably also our whales (recently several whales have been found dead on our coastline).

“We destroy our marine ecosystem by the sewage pollution,plastic pollution and pollution with oil and chemicals.”

Professor Weimann said the City of Cape Town needed to do more, for example, build treatment plants. “There is an urgent need for sewage treatment plants and adequate cleaning of our sewage. Many cities treat sewage to such an extent that it can be reused for the water supply. This process would also solve our recurrent water restrictions as we would not lose billions of litres of water on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the City does not react and engage with their citizens if there is not enough forceful demand.

“Our oceans are on the edge to collapse. How many more wake-up calls do we still need to react and attend to the problem before it is too late?”

Chris Roper, of Code For Africa, said the Beach Water Watch project combined drone and sensor journalism, while addressing the very real problem of people getting sick from polluted water.

“It should also allow us to provide local government with data that will help them to make an informed decision about the current haphazard dumping of sewage into the sea,” he said.

“Most importantly, data driven projects put power into the hands of citizens. They can not only give people vital information, but also a path to doing something about it. Another benefit is that these can be done collaboratively, which can often solve a problem of limited resources for individual organisations.”

Mayco member for utility services, Ernest Sonnenberg, said the City operated 27 wastewater treatment plants, several of which required an immediate increase in treatment capacity to accommodate the city’s rapid development.

“Excluding any other work required at the treatment plants, the cost for increasing the treatment capacity of only four of these plants will be in the region of R4 billion and this will have to be completed within the next five years.

“Given the above, the City has not yet looked in any great detail into the possible construction of additional treatment works to replace these outfalls, however possible impediments include a lack of available land and zoning concerns due to the impact of secondary sewage treatment processes to the surrounding areas.”

He added that the City monitored bathing beaches at least fortnightly in line with national regulations, and that certain beaches are tested more frequently. “The City believes current testing is adequate. Beaches in proximity to the marine outfalls show no additional E coli burden. “In fact beaches such as Clifton and Camps Bay have successfully retained Blue Flag status over many years which would not be possible if the outfalls were contaminating our inshore waters.”

Mr Sonnenberg disagreed that water users would be at risk, saying, “In most cases any health risk to bathers would be due to land-based pollution sources such as the contaminants that have entered the stormwater system, either after a rain event where pollution on our streets is washed out to sea, or due to a sewer blockage that causes an overflow into the stormwater system.”

Social Weaver have conducted a few test flights with the drones so far. When the project gets under way they want to test the water three times a week and measure things such as wind direction.